Sunday, January 6, 2008

India: Day Three (Delhi)

Right now, I’m sitting outside, in a garden with the greenest grass I’ve seen so far in this dry and dusty country. Workers are wrapping red and yellow strips of silk around chairs and tables already draped in white. In the distance, I can hear the sound of two men chanting in Sanskrit, performing the Vedic yagna ritual, from which I’ve snuck out. This ritual, whatever it once signified, is the opening ceremony of the World Congress on Psychology and Spirituality, the reason, however oblique, that I am in India. This morning, we boarded a tour bus (which equated perhaps with the New York Chinatown bus in quality, but is considered first class here) which drove us out of Delhi. After a long drive on a straightway road, during which I saw monkeys sitting on rooftops, as well as turbaned men squatting on spires, in the same style of the monkeys, we made a u-turn and drove back in the same direction we had come. We became locked in traffic when immense trucks of dirt blocked the road. A few dust-encrusted children carrying metal buckets ran up to the bus to ask for money. The girl had a transcendent smile. The boy demanded money. I took pictures of them while the French people in the seat in front of me opened the window, saying, “les enfants!” and gave them some rupees. I didn’t give them money because of my intellectual opposition to begging. I certainly don’t need all of my money. I took their picture and smiled at them, then I cried and wished the bus would start moving again.

My sophomore high school English teacher, who preached Jesuit social justice, used to tell us not to feel guilty when witnessing poverty, oppression, or violence. He told us that guilt is a paralyzing emotion. He told us to feel angry. My mom says that she feels angry here, but I showed her my pictures and she said that they were beautiful. I don’t feel guilty either. I feel reticence, which perhaps may be worse. The more I see of the world, the more thankful I may be, but the more hopelessness overwhelms me. Logistically, from a simple operations standpoint, economic equality, whatever that may be, seems unreachable. Phrases seem impotent in the face of physical reality. As the bus drove through the outskirts of Delhi, we passed openings in crumbling walls, through which I glimpsed India’s own Hoovervilles: conclaves of makeshift homes built from cardboard, fabric, sticks, and corrugated metal. This is a particularly cold winter, and people are clustering around small fires that they build themselves on the ground from piles of trash. They are burning plastic bags. They squat and rub their hands over their small fires.

I stepped away from the yagna, also outdoors, but in a separate pavilion filled with white-draped cushions and strewn with vibrant yellow flowers, because all of these WCPS people, nearly all white, and in various degrees of artiness, new-ageyness, and hippydom, are clustered around the center, at which an Indian woman sits explaining the ritual in clear and precise English while two men crumble flowers, burn sticks, and chant in Sanskrit. The WCPS people are by turn chanting along and taking photographs with digital cameras. A man worked through the clutch with a pot of red paint and marked each one of us. The WCPS people closed their eyes, chanted “namaste,” and took photographs with digital cameras. Perhaps I am no better, sitting here on the patio with my laptop, but I took no pictures of a holy ritual, replete with the knowledge that a camera separates me from the world. If I take a picture of a ritual, I am documenting, not praying. If I am looking for the best picture, I am not seeing everything happening around me, and I’m detached, feeling nothing. Each of these people has paid $300 in addition to the conference cost to take part in this ritual, and just as one is expected to pay the children in the street for their picture, here, we are paying for our spiritual experience. My disengagement is a protective shell, but I cannot break it. In explaining the meaning of the yagna, our hostess described the chakras, named certain Indian gods, and then spoke about the nine planets. She said that we would chant a mantra to each of the nine planets, because they each corresponded with a chakra, because the universe is inside of each of us. The first planet would be the sun, and we should think of our eyes while chanting this mantra. The purpose of the yagna is to surrender our outer, scattered selves, which distract from the source within. The source’s desire is to reunite with the original source, the sun. In the ritual, we use clarified butter, which does not spoil, because it is the most purified form of milk, after all the impurities have been slowly cooked away. So to, should we surrender our selves, to make ourselves like the clarified butter. The WCPS people listed, bright eyed, smiling, mouthing the chants, and took photographs with their digital cameras. I wondered why nine planets corresponding with nine chakras signified that the universe is within us when, first of all, it clearly is not, and secondly, the nine planets and our own Milky Way galaxy are only a speck in the all-encompassing universe. And the sun is a star, not a planet. But language itself gets in the way, is a distraction, from ritual, because in explaining an experience, one is again not experiencing the ritual, but only the explanation. The mind is engaged in a different way. I practice yoga regularly at home, and my intellectual friends find it partially amusing and partially strange. My practice, however, is intensely physical, and fully experiential. If I stop to consider it, I might laugh at myself as loudly as my friends laugh at me. I do not “believe” in chakras, and I do not practice yoga in order to “purify” my “energy;” and yet, I do know that by twisting and balancing and turning upside down and then resting, I am moving my muscles, my bones, and my organs in a way that benefits my physical body, and thereby my emotions and intellect. Spirituality is a luxury, and one in which I’m not interested. Particularly not for payment.


Things have gotten a bit better. After the yagna ended, we were served lunch, including four kinds of rice, dosas, deep friend lentil mash, and two kinds of curried broths with vegetables. I drank my first bottle of flat water in India. So far, so good with the tummy. I had expected to lose at least ten pounds from having explosive diarrhea and not eating anything, but the food is so good and so unhealthy that I will probably end up gaining the weight instead, even if it is mostly vegetarian. We got back on the bus and were driven to the Habitat Center for the conference kick-off. I took a bunch of photos of rubble and trash in the street, a man peeing in the middle of ruins, and a mother with her baby.

At the center, we all piled into the main auditorium. There are approximately 450 people here for the conference, from 40 countries. The biggest contingencies seem to come from the US, Russia, and Spain. For the kick-off, the woman who had led the yagna, whose name is Shruti, and who runs one of the foundations sponsoring the conference, chanted, and then Dr. Karan Singh, one of the esteemed guests, recited a poem. This was to kill time while we awaited the arrival of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (who, apparently, should not be confused with the sitar player, as they are not the same person), who finally arrived dressed in flowing white garments, with curling black hair to his waist and a black beard halfway down his chest. He looked a bit like Jesus, but with dark skin—perhaps closer to what Jesus did look like. He was preceded by attendants dressed in white, who carried white pillows for him, and I expected rose petals to fly through the air as well, although they didn’t. I was sort of annoyed by his “holiness” and the deference with which he was treated, which he soaked up like a peaceful charlatan, but when he was introduced, his accomplishments stacked up impressively. When he took the stage, he spoke for only about fifteen minutes, but he said two very smart things, worth quoting here (I wrote them down). First, he explained, “Spirituality is not a path to achieve something; it simply what it means to be a human being.” This struck me, it being so counter-intuitive, particularly considering the way we approach religion and spirituality in the US. The other thing he said, which was even better, was the following: “We need to secularize religion, socialize business, and spiritualize politics.” Ultimately, this adds up to strictly being more mindful, but it specifies a certain tempering that protects religion from fundamentalism and closed-minded hatred, protects business from inhuman practices, and protects politics from corruption.

Dr. Karan Singh, a charming man dressed, for a reason I’ve not discovered, in a military suit and hat, built on the words of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, interspersed his speech with recited poems (Frost’s Two Paths Diverged), and expressed his curiosity in the craze for Harry Potter books, which are filled with imagined demons. He described the US as being “obsessed with death, disasters, and dinosaurs.” Whether or not it’s true (I think it is) or even a bad thing (I think it’s not), it was quite wittily stated. Like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Dr. Singh insisted that psychology is inextricably linked with spirituality—that they are nearly the same thing, and that there can be no spirituality without an inspection of one’s psyche. He noticed that psychology is only taught at the higher levels (university), whereas high math is taught at the university, but simpler math is taught in elementary schools. He insisted on the importance of teaching elementary psychology in elementary schools, so that young people learn to examine the workings of their own minds and emotions, and know how to work with their emotions, rather than act out with violence or pain. He blames the explosive diagnoses of depression on our inability to examine our own psyches. Both of these speakers professed surprisingly grounded arguments, rather than the new-age mumbo-jumbo I had been expecting, so I was quite pleased.

The speakers that followed were less interesting; they included the founder of Transpersonal Psychology (the Association of Transpersonal Psychology is another one of the organizing foundations of the conference, but I’ve yet to discover what, precisely, Transpersonal Psychology is), a Swami dressed all in saffron, an exiled Tibetan Buddhist monk living in Varanasi (on the Ganges, where we will be traveling later) and who teaches as an associate professor at Amherst in the US, and a local politician, who, of the four, gave the only engaging talk, although in retrospect, he said nothing new. I found out that the Habitat Center has wifi, so I purchased a card and found out about the results in Iowa. This was more surprising and excitement inducing than anything I’d heard all day.

My mother then collected me and we called a taxi to take us back to the Gymkhana Club so that we could get our luggage and check into Le Meridien. The taxi was a tiny green minivan with a yellow stripe and sliding doors and windows. Inside, it was like the necessary shell of a vehicle, without any of the padding that separates one from the mechanics; the engine, loud and smelly, seemed to be churning right underneath our feet. The doors were just a sheet of metal with handles on either side. The windshield was flush with the front fender. Imagine a rectangle on wheels, paint it green with a yellow stripe, and that was our taxi. The motor churned and coughed and shook, and once we had loaded the van with luggage and driven to Le Meridien, I doubted that it would make it up the long ramp to the hotel entrance. And yet, it did. I paid the driver INR 220 ($5)—his meter was covered with a dirty white washcloth, but we had pre-negotiated a price, as instructed by the Lonely Planet.

Of course, as soon as we arrived at Le Meridien, everything became very airy and fresh and fluff. We were shown to our room, on the 17thfloor, and received instructions on how to operate the panel of buttons that controlled the “mood lighting,” a color panel, eight foot by eight, behind our two twin beds, which lights in a cobalt blue light or a warm blush, depending on the button you push. The panel had a button for every light in the room, each which turned on and off on dimmers, so as not to shock one’s eyes, and the next morning, as we had set the alarm for six, the lights began gradually glowing in a warm orangey-pink color, slowly brightening to gently rouse us from our slumber, since it was still pitch dark outside our floor-to-ceiling picture window, with a view of all of Delhi. Our room was also stocked with complimentary bottled water, a complimentary bottle of Shiraz, and a complimentary bowl of apples (which are supposedly safe to eat, if one peels them). We freshened up and went up to the club lounge, where free happy hour was on. I had two gin and tonics, mom two vodka tonics, and we were brought snacks—battered and fried slices of fish and warm kabobs of tomato and cubed cottage cheese in tomato sauce (Indian cottage cheese is not like American; it is cubed, and firm, and deliciously similar to tofu, except cheesy). At eight, we returned to the lobby, where our driver (Matkhan) was waiting to take us back to the Habitat Center for dinner (as if I weren’t already full of snacks). We went back to the main auditorium, where a program of traditional Indian dance was being performed, with four live musicians. The music was excellent, though I have seen better Indian dance in New York, though the dancer did have beautifully potent facial expressions, which I hadn’t before ever noticed. Dinner was served outside, buffet-style, and was all vegetarian: rice, nan, curried beans (eye-poppingly spicy), eggplant, vegetable stir-fry, and broccoli in a creamy curry sauce. I could only eat half of my food, thanks to having filled up on happy hour snacks. I had, though, maintained room for dessert: ice cream with super-sugary twizzles of deep fried dough. By now we were exhausted, and we called Matkhan to come fetch us back to Le Meridien, which he did. I climbed into bed immediately and was practically asleep when the concierge delivered our requested extra blankets, but I was already toasty (at last) under my down comforter. Perhaps money can’t buy happiness exactly, but it certainly enables it.

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